How to manage telecommuters

After some of his employees expressed an interest in working from home, this manager consulted Project Management mentor Tom Mochal on the pros and cons of telecommuting.

TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

There are a number of people in my group who are interested in telecommuting one or more days from home. I spoke to my manager and he is concerned about whether we can keep track of the work that is going on and whether the people will be more or less productive at home compared to when they are in the office. Do you have any guidance on how to show my manager that telecommuting will be a good thing for the company, as well as the employees?

Everyone should know the basics of teleworking or telecommuting. Many organizations have integrated this program into their work environment. Others are struggling to determine how to approach the issue. IT managers should weigh the pros and cons.

The benefits
There are a number of tangible and intangible benefits associated with a telecommuting policy. First of all, it is perceived as a quality-of-life benefit. People are generally happier if they have an option to work at home one or more days per week. It keeps them out of the traffic and reduces office distractions, letting people focus on their work for large blocks of time. As a result, many people are more productive working outside the office. Because only a percentage of companies offer telecommuting, working from home can be used as a perk to increase retention among current staff, and it may be an advantage when recruiting new staff.

The problems
There are real and perceived barriers to telecommuting, as well. For instance, IT managers may be faced with incremental hardware and software costs to get connected. There is also a concern that less personal interaction will lead to problems associated with teamwork and camaraderie. However, the biggest barrier is usually a management mindset. Managers are concerned that since they can’t see telecommuters, it’s difficult to know what they are doing and whether they are being as productive as they are when working in the office.

Your company can implement telecommuting by asking the following question: Can a person effectively do their job from home, given that the right logistics are available and there is proper management focus? In the IT development world, for instance, programmers basically sit at their desks for hours, or days, focusing on coding and testing. This work can be done from home, maybe more effectively than in the office (unless you are doing pair programming). Systems Analysts need to be in the office to meet with their business clients, but much of their analysis work can be done from home. Project Managers probably need to spend most of their time in the office, since they spend much of their time interacting with people.

Start with a pilot project
Don’t make a full commitment up front. A pilot project should be launched to see whether, and how, a telecommuting program would work. Most of the information you need to get started, such as overall process, benefits, costs, hardware/software, management focus, training, etc., are available from a multitude of sites on the Web. Start with a telecommuting option of one day per week. Evaluate whether it is successful and then see what it would take to implement on a larger scale in your organization.

Track the results
At least in the beginning, I would recommend telecommuters be very diligent in showing that they are getting their work done from home. You can demonstrate this by having the telecommuter document the work they plan to do from home and then having them validate whether all the work was completed. If not, he or she should explain why. As long as the manager is satisfied with the level of work assigned for the telecommuting day, there should not be a problem if that work is completed. This level of reporting may not be needed when people are comfortable that the program is working effectively.

Preparation is the key
Employees love a telecommuting option, even if it is one day per week. This should translate into higher morale, increased retention, and decreased time to find new employees. However, telecommuting must make business sense. If people can be just as productive at home as they are in the office it should seem sensible. If some jobs can be done even more effectively at home, the business case for telecommuting is even stronger. The biggest obstacle you will face is not from the telecommuters but from the managers. Managers need to feel comfortable knowing that deadlines are met—not from knowing a person is in his office all day. Prepare your managers and the telecommuters for the new paradigm.

What’s your opinion of telecommuting?
Have you had experience with telecommuting? What was the result? Are you reluctant to try it for some of the reasons listed in this article? Send us some mail or post a comment.


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